A Photogenic Horror: Lewton Does Robert Louis Stevenson

Article excerpt

Before becoming a story editor for David Selznick and then going on to produce his famous series of B-films at RKO, Val Lewton had embarked on a writing career, working first as a reporter and then churning out a broad range of historical novels, romances, and thrillers.1 That literary background apparently served him well in his film work, for according to his associates he "rewrote everything that his writers turned in; the last draft [of each script] was always his."2 Perhaps more importantly, he made that literary atmosphere felt everywhere in his productions; as Mark Robson, director of five Lewton films, recalls, "we were sort of brainwashed, in a way- brainwashed into thinking in poetic terms."3 However, that almost tangible literary quality for which the Lewton films are justly esteemed has often made for a strangely uncinematic evaluation of them. They have been praised as "ambitiously literary," "poetic," and have been lauded for what they did not show, as if their success were largely due to Lewton's prizing literary techniques over established film practices. Certainly he sought to tone down the conventional grotesquery of the horror genre in which he most frequently worked, eliminating the spectacular monsters and ghouls with which his competitors at Universal Studios had been so successful. In place of what he termed those "masklike faces hardly human, with gnashing teeth and hair standing on end,"4 Lewton strove for a subtler form of the grotesque; yet it was one which indeed thrived on distinctly cinematic techniques of narrative.

Lewton's adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson's story, "The Body-Snatcher," may best exemplify what he added over and above the "literary" and testify to his mindfulness of cinematic practice. In order to bring that Victorian horror story to the screen, Lewton fully reworked the tale's structure and characterization to such an extent that, for one of the few times in his career, he took screen credit for the final script, using the pseudonym Carlos Keith, a name under which he had previously penned several novels. What he had to work from was a complex tale in which an anonymous narrator introduces an older acquaintance named Fettes and then proceeds to relate this character's past history as it was told to him. Distanced by time from the actions he reports, that narrator inexplicably breaks off his account with one horrific scene, the description of a grotesque vision or visitation once experienced by Fettes. While that frame structure involving several time periods, an intrusive narrator, and the single-effect shock ending are devices hardly alien to film narrative, they do present some obstacles in translation to the screen. Flashbacks, voice-over narration, and arresting imagery have long been the stock-in-trade of film story-telling, though each imposes limitations particularly unwelcome for the horror genre. A frame tale most often brackets the grotesque, keeping it at a less alarming temporal remove, just as a voice-over intrudes a "safe," rationalizing buffer between the audience and those horrors it recounts. The shocking image trades on film's immediate visual impact, but almost inevitably at some cost in ambiguity and complexity. The narrative effects found in Stevenson's short piece would, therefore, pose a test of cinematic skill for any adapter.

Although with far greater complexity and to more point, Henry James's The Turn of the Screw employs generally similar elements and narrative structure as does "The Body-Snatcher," and its famous screen adaptation, The Innocents, is quite effective. That film beneficially eliminates both the framework and narrator of James's story, but at the end it capitulates to our curiosity, providing an objective view of one of the tale's "ghosts," and thereby fails to achieve quite the complex and troubling ambiguity of its literary source. Given far less to work with, Lewton fares somewhat better overall with The Body Snatcher, creating a film perhaps less understated than The Innocents, but one more complex and original in conception. …